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Will Kerryon Johnson Carry You To Fantasy Success? - Footballguys

A detailed look at Kerryon Johnson's fantasy prospects in 2018. 

Can Kerryon Bring the Lions’ Roar Back?

The Lions have been synonymous with ineffective running games for nearly 20 years. It’s hard to believe the team Barry Sanders played for has devolved into a franchise incapable of fielding a 1,000-yard runner. Since Sanders retired in 1998, the Lions have had just four 1,000-yard seasons:

Running Back
Year
Age
Games
Rushes
RuYards
Yds/Ru
RuTDs
FanPts
James Stewart
2000
29
16
339
1184
3.49
10
213.1
James Stewart
2002
31
14
231
1021
4.42
4
171.4
Kevin Jones
2004
22
15
241
1133
4.70
5
167.3
Reggie Bush
2013
28
14
223
1006
4.51
4
193.2

New head coach Matt Patricia opted to offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter but insisted on changes to the team’s offensive approach, assistant coaches, and scheme. The team brought in Jeff Davidson to rebuild the line and implement a power-blocking scheme. Detroit invested in several rookie linemen including first-round pick Frank Ragnow. They’ve added a fullback to the roster. And most importantly, they drafted Kerryon Johnson in the 2nd round.

Johnson is being treated as an afterthought among a bumper crop of enticing rookie running backs. He routinely comes off the board several rounds later than Royce Freeman, Ronald Jones, Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, and Rashaad Penny. While Johnson’s situation is no slam dunk, his talent and the Lions new focus on the ground attack make him a bet worth taking; mainly when the price is lower than a handful of other rookies who did less in college and have just as many impediments to full-time roles.

Pop Quiz: Who was the 2017 Offensive Player of the Year in the SEC?

The answer is…

...Kerryon Johnson.

As a junior at Auburn, Johnson ran 285 times for 1,391 yards, caught 24 receptions for 194 yards, and scored 20 touchdowns. He led the SEC in carries, yards, and touchdowns.

Winning collegiate awards is not a perfect indicator of NFL success. It’s worth pointing out Tre Mason won the same award at Auburn in 2013 in more impressive fashion (1,816 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns) and never amounted to much at the pro level. But Mason’s struggles weren’t talent related; he walked away from the Rams after multiple incidents of erratic behavior and run-ins with the law.

So if college awards aren’t indicative of future success, what factors matter more?

  1. System Fit – Was the player a byproduct of a non-pro style system that hasn’t historically translated to NFL success?
  2. Measurables and Skills – Does the player have size, speed, vision, agility, and strength commensurate with the profile of NFL stars?
  3. Health – Has the player remained injury-free and, if not, were his collegiate injuries indicative of future skills degradation?
  4. Demeanor and Maturity – Is the player a good person with a clean history as both a good teammate and a responsible citizen?
  5. Landing Spot – Does the player’s NFL destination provide the opportunity to flourish through a combination of good coaching, role, and supporting cast?

System Fit – Beware the Malzahn Effect?

Gus Malzahn has a proven offensive system, and it’s helped carry him from an assistant at Arkansas and Tulsa to his current post as an SEC head coach at Auburn. In his time as an offensive coordinator and head coach, quite a few running backs have put up gaudy statistics. Unfortunately, Malzahn’s star running backs have failed to make an impact in the NFL. That’s led many college scouts to wonder if it’s Malzahn’s system that produces the results, versus the talent of the backs themselves. Long-time ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit raised that question about Kerryon Johnson’s prospects:

“Kerryon, I think people are trying to figure out with him how much of what he did was Gus Malzahn’s system and it got him in a position to have a lot of success,” Herbstreit said. “And how much of what he can do will transition into the NFL, in a little bit more of a traditional system.”

Gus Malzahn's Collegiate Running Backs (Minimum: 1,000 Rushing Yards)

College
Year
Running Back
NFL Draft Pos
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
Arkansas
2006
Darren McFadden
1st (4th)
1,647
14
11
149
1
Arkansas
2006
Felix Jones
1st (22nd)
1,168
6
15
107
3
Tulsa
2007
Tarrion Adams
Undrafted
1,225
8
30
301
3
Tulsa
2008
Tarrion Adams
Undrafted
1,523
14
23
213
1
Auburn
2009
Ben Tate
2nd (58th)
1,362
10
20
105
0
Auburn
2010
Michael Dyer
Undrafted
1,093
5
1
9
0
Auburn
2011
Michael Dyer
Undrafted
1,242
10
2
7
0
ArkansasState
2012
David Oku
Undrafted
1,061
16
20
159
1
Auburn
2013
Tre Mason
3rd (75th)
1,816
23
12
163
1
Auburn
2014
Cameron Artis-Payne
5th (174th)
1,608
13
13
147
0
Auburn
2015
Peyton Barber
Undrafted
1,017
13
11
112
0
Auburn
2016
Kamryn Pettway
Undrafted
1,224
7
2
14
0
Auburn
2017
2nd (43rd)
1,391
18
24
194
2

The running backs on this list are not awe-inspiring. Darren McFadden is the only one to produce at an NFL level, and that was in Malzahn’s first season as an offensive coordinator. McFadden had already emerged as a star in the prior season.

Measurables and Skills – Not Elite, but Checks All the Boxes

Johnson is well built, measuring 6-foot-0, 212 pounds, but some scouts worry he’s too tall and slender to handle an NFL pounding. He’s not a burner but ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at Auburn’s pro day. Various reports had Johnson in the 69th – 70th percentile for SPARQ (a measure of overall athleticism created by Nike), which is good enough to be a productive NFL back.

Matt Waldman, in his fantastic (and must read) Rookie Scouting Portfolio, graded Kerryon Johnson as the fourth-best running back in the class.

  • Elite power
  • Starter-caliber balance
  • Starter-caliber ball-handling
  • Starter-caliber speed
  • Elite acceleration
  • Starter-caliber vision
  • Starter-caliber elusiveness
  • Reserve-caliber blocking
  • Committee-caliber receiving

The only factors Johnson doesn’t carry high grades are pass-blocking and as a receiver, but Waldman believes both are good enough when combined with the value he’ll bring as a runner.

Health – Nicks, and Dents but No Major Red Flags

There’s a narrative that Johnson is injury-prone, and his upright running style will make him more like to get hurt in the future. There’s nothing to be said about his running style other than the film shows a powerful runner willing and able to lower his head and shoulder for oncoming contact. You’re either going to be okay with his style or not. As to his injury history, it’s lengthy but nothing chronic or debilitating. Johnson only missed four games at Auburn and played hurt in crucial situations. He had shoulder surgery before the 2016 season, and aggravated the same shoulder in the final regular season game last year but played in the SEC Championship game a week later. If you would rather draft a player who sits out at the first sign of pain, so be it. Most prefer a workhorse who can play through pain.

Demeanor and Maturity – Passes with Flying Colors

Johnson is universally perceived as a thoughtful, coachable, and focused person. His assistant coaches have called him ‘conscientious,’ ‘hard-working,’ and ‘intelligent.’ His teammates all praised his leadership, willingness to play hurt, and his ability to support the other running backs. When he underwent shoulder surgery in 2016, Johnson took on sideline coaching duties as an adjunct position coach. He has no legal concerns or behavioral issues of any kind. In other words, he’s a model citizen.

Landing Spot – Eye of the Beholder

The $64,000 question is whether Detroit is an ideal landing spot. There are pros and cons to becoming a Lion, but we lean toward it being a good destination.

PROS

  • Detroit traded up in the 2nd round to select Johnson
  • The Lions chose Johnson over Derrius Guice and Royce Freeman
  • Running backs coach David Walker sees Johnson as a three-down player
  • Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has praised Johnson’s experience against high-level competition
  • The Lions bolstered the offensive line in the offseason
  • Cooter has re-implemented the fullback as part of the run scheme
  • New offensive line coach Jeff Davidson is a major upgrade
  • The team is implementing a power-blocking scheme (versus last year’s zone)

CONS

  • New head coach Matt Patricia comes from a Patriots team that loves running back committees
  • Jim Bob Cooter called the plays last year, and Detroit had the league’s worst rushing offense
  • LeGarrette Blount is a proven short-yardage power back
  • Theo Riddick is a proven third-down receiving back
  • Ameer Abdullah hasn’t been released or traded

Hopefully, Johnson will emerge from the pack but it’s not a foregone conclusion. Detroit didn’t trade up into the 2nd round to keep Johnson on the bench, but it would be comforting to see evidence of Johnson’s depth chart ascension during the preseason. All-in-all, the Lions have a reputation for being unable to run the ball, but a new head coach, offensive line coach, rebuilt offensive line, and blocking scheme make comparisons to past years moot.

Projections

Projector
Games
Rushes
RuYards
RuTDs
Recs
ReYards
ReTDs
FumLost
15.1
155.0
620
4.3
24.0
178
1.4
1.4
15.0
175.0
750
5.8
30.0
250
1.3
1.5
16.0
160.0
630
5.0
31.0
210
1.0
1.0
16.0
112.0
464
3.8
24.5
189
0.8
1.5

Final Thoughts

Kerryon Johnson is being treated like the red-headed stepchild of a stellar rookie running back class. That's difficult to understand. He excelled at the highest level of collegiate competition. He outplayed fellow rookies including Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Derrius Guice. And Johnson had a worse supporting cast at Auburn than those other backs. There are questions about whether Johnson's college system overstates the running back's abilities, but the film shows a powerful runner with good vision. There are questions about the Lions long history of bad rushing offenses, but it's not fair to judge the 2018 organization against history. A new head coach, a new offensive line coach, a rebuilt offensive line, and a new blocking scheme all offer hope for improvement. There are questions about the depth chart, but it's high time the Lions let Theo Riddick, Zach Zenner, and Ameer Abdullah fade into obscurity. It'll be harder to displace free agent LeGarrette Blount, but his role is limited to short-yardage in all likelihood. Johnson has too many questions to target as a top-25 pick, but he's the perfect fit as an RB3 or RB4 because he could be the Lions three-down feature back later in the season. The uncertainties are mitigated by the draft price.


Other Thoughts from Around the Web

FantasySharks Jay Devineni sees Kerryon Johnson as the most talented member of the Lions committee:

"Johnson was a multipurpose back with great burst and physicality during his three years at Auburn, and the Lions liked him enough to trade up and draft him in the second round. Despite durability concerns, he only missed three games in college, and he averaged over 25 touches per game in his final year. He’s entering a crowded backfield, but he appears to have the most complete skill-set of any Lions back."

Rotoworld's Evan Silva sees a low ceiling for the rookie:

"Johnson could conceivably exceed 200 touches as a rookie but still provide low weekly ceilings due to shortages of catches and TDs."

Shark Pool (Footballguys Message Board) Thoughts

barackdhouse thinks Kerryon can challenge for rookie of the year honors:

"Lions offense could really soar this year. Gotta figure goal line work goes to Blount and most 3rd down passing situations go to Riddick. So KJ is capped for this year a little. But if he can be the early down guy that they moved up in the draft to get, I don't see why he can't be a ROY candidate if there were such an award for people not named Barkley. I think I like him more than Jones, Chubb, or Michel in 2018. Guice, I'm not sure, and I like Penny more."

travdogg sees Johnson as more of an RB3/flex option:

"They clearly like him, I don't think anybody expected him to be drafted as high as he was, and they traded up to get him. If anybody breaks out in this backfield, I'd bet on it being him. That said, Riddick is an excellent 3rd down back, and Blount has made a habit in recent years of getting more work than expected.

Johnson isn't a guy who I'm targeting at all, and I'm ok if that ends up being a mistake. The Lions haven't run well in years, and while they changed at HC, they didn't at OC, and I expect that is because they are mostly happy with how the offense has performed.

I'll say 800 yards and 4 TDs. Optimally a flex option, but I think most leagues will have someone who likes him a lot more than I do."

TheDirtyWord thinks the Lions need Johnson on the field because the other running backs are one-dimensional:

"I think part of the problem the Lions have with their personnel is how Blount/Riddick are so one-dimensional that their mere presence on the field gives away pass/run look.

Riddick has carried the ball on just a shade lower than 20% of his offensive snaps the last two years. And yet still managed just a 3 point something YPC.

Blount carried the ball on 53% of his offensive snaps the last two seasons (obviously with two different teams) but offers absolutely nothing in the passing game.

So the degree the Lions can truly alternate between Blount/Riddick, without a healthy dose of Kerryon, seems limited."